New Exception Created for Warrantless Police Search of Your Home
One of the fundamentals of our Constitution is that our homes are free from government intrusion i.e. police entry and search without a warrant. However, there are exceptions to that rule called "Exigent Circumstances". That means an officer can enter a home without a warrant if one of the exigent circumstances exist. For example, if a police officer comes upon a home and hears screaming as though someone is being hurt or killed, the officer can enter the home (break in if necessary) to save that person's life.
The exigent circumstances are generally limited to Emergency (save life or property), Hot Pursuit, or to Prevent the Destruction of Evidence. Recently, a California Appeals Court has added an exigent circumstance which would allow a police officer to enter your home without a warrant. In People v. Chung, 2010 DJDAR 8189, neighbors heard loud howls and yelps coming from Chung's condo. They had heard the same noises earlier in the week and became concerned for the safety of the animals inside. The neighbors called police and reported what they had heard coming from Chung's condo. The officers knocked on the door, and Chung answered only peaking his head out. The officers told Chung why they were there and he denied owning any dogs. While speaking with Chung, the officers heard a faint whimpering coming from within Chung's condo. They asked Chung for permission to enter and search his condo, but Chung refused. The officers then entered Chung's condo without a warrant citing the sounds of a hurt animal as the "exigent circumstance" to check on the dog's well being. When the officers entered, they found a small dog bleeding and near death in the bathroom. Additionally, they found a dead dog in the freezer. Chung was arrested and charged with animal cruelty.
Chung challenged the warrantless entry by police as not falling under the "exigent circumstance" exception to the warrant requirement. The appellate court did not buy the argument and held that officers may enter a home without a warrant in order to check on the welfare of a live animal in distress.
While this case seems like a good decision, police officers are constantly trying to push the envelope with respect to warrantless searches. If you find yourself in that position, it is important to hire a good lawyer to challenge the lawfulness of police actions.